After hunting, you’re often left with a meat surplus that needs to be preserved in order to provide you with a safe source of protein for the coming days, weeks or months. Humans have been keeping meat safe to eat for thousands of years, long before refrigeration was an option. So, what can modern man do in the wild to keep their hunting meat safe for consumption for months after their kill?
The most common ways to preserve meat in the wild are drying with the sun, curing with salt, smoking, or a combination of the techniques. The goal with preservation is to remove moisture from the meat and create an environment that is inhospitable for microbial or bacterial growth.
Once preserved, you also need to protect the meat from flies, water, oxygen, and elevated temperatures. Due to chemical and enzymatic processes, meat is highly susceptible to spoilage.
In the wild, you’re aiming to slow and/or eliminate these degradation reactions by reducing the temperature, eliminating water, and creating a protective coating on the meat’s surface. By doing so, the shelf-life of the meat is extended, providing you with a rich source of protein for weeks or even months.
Why Do We Need to Preserve Meat?
Unless you are eating meat immediately following a kill (within one to three hours), you need to prevent the growth of microorganisms, otherwise, it will be unsafe for human consumption.
Of these microorganisms, the growth of bacteria is of the greatest concern to your health and it is hard to stall without refrigeration. In the optimal bacterial growth zone of 41 to 135 degrees Fahrenheit, bacteria can double in just 20 minutes. Once the bacteria have reached infectious levels, it cannot be reversed. Even cooking the meat at elevated temperatures will not eradicate the microorganisms despite killing the live bacteria.
Unfortunately, during cooking, the spores will lie dormant and begin to multiply as soon as the meat temperature reenters the growth zone. Therefore, preventing irreversible bacterial growth from the instant the animal dies is a race against time.
The bacteria you are trying to stop multiplying in the meat are mainly E. Coli, Salmonella, Shigella, Staphylococcus, and Listeria. Ingestion of these strains in significant quantities will result in food poisoning from contracting a foodborne illness.
You can expect the onset of food poisoning symptoms within twelve hours and these include nausea, vomiting, stomach pains, diarrhea, fever or chills, and weakness. All of these symptoms are unpleasant in the comfort of your home but can lead to a fight for survival if you are in the wilderness.
Preserving meat, is, therefore, a key survival tool to keep yourself safe and to not waste the sacrificed animal. While working with the raw meat, be mindful of preventing cross-contamination. This is achieved by thoroughly cleaning your knives, hands, and clothes that have come into contact with the carcass before touching anything else.
Preparing Meat for Preservation
As discussed, microorganisms thrive at room and ambient outdoor temperatures. To slow the bacterial duplication rate, getting the meat cooler as fast as possible is your immediate concern when dealing with your kill.
I’m not talking about freezer cool here, but lowering the temperature even a small amount will give you more time to start the preservation process.
To rapidly cool the meat, remove the natural insulators of bone, connective tissue, and connective fat during the cleaning process. Cut the meat into small pieces immediately as this will allow the heat to dissipate quicker.
If possible, use a stream nearby to wash and cool the meat simultaneously. Pack the meat into a game bag to protect it from dirt and flies while you work on cleaning the rest of the carcass.
Many game bags, like these popular ones found on Amazon, (Click to see Amazon Listing) come with an anti-microbial coating, which will preserve your meat during these first few hours. Keep the meat in these storage bags until you are ready to employ a preservation method.
Cold Climates Make it “Easier”
If you are in colder climates, expose the game bags to the cool breeze, or cover them in snow. If your surroundings allow for it, cut into ice to create a natural refrigerator for your meat. However, if you are not in ambient temperatures below 41 degrees Fahrenheit, keeping the meat cool with nature alone won’t preserve the meat for long. Without any further modifications, extending the viability of the meat by a couple of days is about all you can expect to gain from rapid cooling alone.
Once the meat has been prepared for preservation, you can use one of five techniques to cure it in the wild:
Preservation Option #1: Dry the Meat Naturally with Sunlight
Despite the plethora of methods man has devised or discovered for dehydrating meat, the least technical method is to use the power of the sun to dry your meat. The most effective tactic of sunlight-induced dehydration is to cut your meat into thin strips and place them in direct sunlight.
If possible, keep your meat away from flies and other insects by covering your drying meat in a fine mesh net (if you don’t have specifically designed meat bags for this purpose).
In the wild, it is best to dry the meat by hanging the strips between trees, allowing the sunlight to dry the meat from both sides. If this is not possible and you lay the meat on rocks, for example, remember to flip your meat.
Properly sunlight-dried meat will last for a couple of weeks. However, it will lack the flavor of many other dehydration methods available. It is also important to keep the dried meat in sealed bags to prevent oxygen enabling bacterial or yeast growth.
Pro Tip: It is worth noting that dehydrating your protein will not only preserve it but it will also vastly reduce the weight of the meat. Typically, 60% of a meat’s weight is due to water, and after dehydrating you can expect the mass of your scavenged meat to half. This is essential if you are transporting your meat, especially over long distances. Additionally, dehydrated meat shrinks resulting in a smaller impact on your pack’s size compared to fresh cuts.
Overall, if stuck in the wild unexpectedly, nature alone can keep your food safe if conditions allow. However, if the weather is overcast, raining, or not cold enough for refrigeration but not warm enough to dry meat, sunlight alone will not suffice in effectively preserving meat for the long-haul.
Preservation Option #2: Curing
Curing/corning is the process of dehydrating the meat with the addition of table salt (sodium chloride). This was the primary method of preserving meat until the advent of refrigeration. The salt removes the water through a process called osmosis, where the internal moisture of the meat is driven outward to the salt to achieve an electrolyte balance.
The lack of internal water prevents bacterial growth. It is an ideal method to use in the wild as it’s relatively fast and doesn’t involve additional elements like fire or a strong sun. However, it does require forethought and the carrying of salt, which can take up significant weight in a pack. It is also not reusable, so you need to bring enough with you to last the length of your journey.
Curing can be achieved by either applying a wet or dry rub. Adding sugar to the rub will help with the harshness of the salt flavor and promote the growth of the good bacteria Lactobacillus. For curing, I recommend #1 Pink Curing Salt (Click to see Amazon listing). It’s specifically designed for this process.
Adding some nitrates, e.g., spinach will eliminate the Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that leads to botulism. Combined, a curing rub will provide an inhospitable environment for microorganisms both on the meat’s surface and internally.
- Wet cure: The base of any wet rub should be a 20% saline solution (saltwater). To this, you can add spices or sugar to preferentially flavor your meat. After being submerged in the mix for five minutes, remove the meat and dry the meat through evaporation. Once dry, the meat will be coated in a protective layer of salt that prevents bacterial growth.
- Dry cure: Instead of using a saline solution, you apply the salt mix directly to the pieces of meat. You will also need to let the meat air dry, to evaporate the water content that the salt is driving from the inside of the meat to its surface. Often, game bags are used during this process to protect the meat from flies and other insects.
Once your cured meat is dry, store the meat in airtight containers or bags to maintain an oxygen-deprived environment. If stacking the meat in the container, ensure there is a thick layer of salt between the pieces. With curing, you can expect your meat to be preserved for several months. If the meat has been allowed to fully dry, then you have produced jerky. The word jerky means “dried, salted meat”, and that is what you are creating with thin sections of cured meat.
Preservation Option #3: Smoking
Smoking meat is another method of meat dehydration without cooking the meat. In addition to flavor, smoking meat produces an acidic surface that prevents bacterial growth, preserving the meat further than just dehydration alone.
However, smoking meat is a time-consuming process and isn’t suitable if you’re trying to cover terrain. Despite this, smoking doesn’t require you to bring any preservation materials with you, like salt or spices, so it can be the best option in the wild under certain conditions.
This specialized technique is dependent on having the right wood to burn and a method of retaining the smoke around the meat:
- First, you need to use hardwood as softwoods of conifers like pine or spruce contain pitch which coats your meat in an unpalatable bitter taste.
- Secondly, the wood needs to be dry as green (wet) wood will not burn properly and cover your meat in incombustible carcinogens. This is another reason why smoking in the wild might not be the most practical idea unless you are living off the grid and/or in a stationary location for several months. However, assuming you have access to dry hardwood for burning, you can smoke meat over a fire.
- Finally, you need to create a canopy above the fire to keep the smoke around the meat as best as possible and not dissipate into the air. Building something from strewn pieces of lumber is cumbersome, so bringing a fire-resistant material for this purpose in your kit is advisable.
Pro Tip: To smoke your meat, choose a hardwood like hickory, cherry, oak, maple or applewood. These will provide your meat with the flavor and coat the meat in preservatives, e.g., formaldehyde and alcohol.
To achieve this, you want the meat to be surrounded by temperatures ranging from 109 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit and not be close to the fire’s flame. This ensures that the meat doesn’t get cooked, yet the smoke is warm enough to assist in dehydrating the meat. The time required to fully smoke your meat will be reduced by using small, thin cuts of meat that have already been slightly dehydrated.
Frequently, the curing process is combined with smoking to create a more flavorful jerky product. In the wild, this can be an excellent technique to employ. By curing the meat, followed by smoking your preserved meat will have the benefit of salt maintaining an internal dryness, while the smoking adds a protective layer while adding to the flavor.
Preservation Option #4: Submerge in Brine
Storing your meat in brine is a traditional technique that could be best in the wild if they are no feasible ways to dehydrate the meat. While the process is similar to curing as you are treating the meat with a salt solution, the aim is not to dehydrate the meat. Instead, you are protecting it from the atmosphere by keeping the meat fully submerged in the marinade-like fluid.
This prevents bacterial growth by depriving the microorganisms of oxygen, keeping it safe for human consumption. An additional benefit is that brining maintains the meat’s tenderness which all the other preservation methods do not; inherently, dried meat is chewy.
For brining, you should use larger pieces of meat, otherwise, the brining process will only take a few hours and your meat will taste salty if left in the solution longer. If left long enough, you will have essentially pickled your meat. You can make the flavor more palatable by seasoning the salt solution with herbs and spices and adding a sweet balance with caramel or a sugar cane.
A disadvantage to brining in the wild is that the brining meat will add significant weight to your pack. The meat itself will be heavier as it is not dehydrated, and it will be surrounded by water. It will also need to be stored in an airtight container that will add up to a pound to your pack’s weight. For these reasons, it not wise to use bringing as the main method of preserving large amounts of meat in the wilderness.
Preservation Option #5: Use Preservatives from a Can
The modern world has caught up with the primitive life and you can now purchase preservative sprays or powders to simplify your meat storage, like this type found on Amazon.
Typically, these utilize a citric acid mixture that creates an inhospitable environment for bacteria on the meat’s surface. This is a good option for those looking to limit the amount of sodium in their diet while avoiding the need for a fire.
However, this does not dehydrate the meat, therefore, it’s preservation time potential isn’t very long. Realistically, you want to reapply the commercially prepared preservative every couple of days.
Pro Tip: Drying the meat as best you can before applying the spray or powder will increase the preservation time. You’ll find that the citric acid will form a crust that needs to be removed before cooking and eating the meat.
Considering that your meat should be in small pieces from earlier preparation steps, this can lead to a conservable amount of wasted protein. Again, place your coated meat in game bags after coating to protect it from flies and the dirt of the wilderness.
Can you eat too much beef jerky? As with anything you consume, everything is safe in moderation. However, ingesting large amounts of jerky will adversely affect your health. Expect your cholesterol and blood pressure to increase if jerky is a primary component of your diet. The high salt content (sodium, specifically), will also put you at higher risk of suffering a stroke or developing kidney disease.
Will cooking my meat preserve it? When you cook meat, you kill all the live bacteria that were exposed to temperatures greater than 135 degrees Fahrenheit by denaturing the proteins that make them. However, you cannot kill the spores that remain inside the meat, which will begin the multiply once the meat has cooled. As the cooked meat still contains moisture, the bacteria can duplicate freely in this environment. Without refrigeration, cooked meat can spoil within several hours for this reason.
What chemicals are used to preserve foods? Benzoates, nitrates, and sulfites are the three most commonly used chemical families in food preservation. Each is used to prevent decomposition via microbial growth and the risk of consumers contracting a foodborne infection via bacterial content. Benzoates are used in acidic food like salad dressings or carbonated drinks. Nitrates are used to maintain healthy meat. Finally, sulfites are commonly used as an antioxidant in wines and other beverages.